The vanishing Major: Shady art dealings in post-war Europe

As recalled by Dick Kingzett of Agnew’s

As the post-war frontiers of Europe crumbled away, stories began to emerge of works of art looted in war time and during the first years of the Allied Occupation. Agnew’s was involved in one of these.

In 1946 an American Major asked us to store two crates of pictures until he knew where he would eventually be living. He was staying at what he called the “Claridge” but said that any correspondence should be sent to New York to await collection from the poste restante box in the Empire State Building. The cases slumbered in our basement for several years before the Major reappeared. He was a dapper little man with a neatly clipped moustache and a rather oblique way of speaking. When I asked if he was still in the Army, he said that he was “kinda” working for the United States Government. The nature of his work, he implied, was too secret to be divulged to a mere salesman in an art gallery. His instructions were to send the contents of the smaller case to Christie’s. It held five quite good pictures by minor, Dutch seventeenth-century painters, which sold reasonably well.

We were arranging payment to the poste restante box when something happened that made us stay our hand. The purchaser of one of the lots discovered after the sale that his acquisition was very similar to another work by the same artist in the Staedel Institut in Frankfurt. When he wrote to the director there asking if he could bring his new purchase over for purposes of comparison, Dr Holzinger replied that this would not be possible because their picture had been stolen after the war.

As a hurried check revealed that the other four lots we had sent to the auctioneers all appeared to be versions of pictures from Frankfurt, we informed the police. They instructed us to tell the Major that he would be required to attend in person to receive payment for his pictures and that he must give the poste restante box in New York twenty-four hours notice of his arrival. This, they hoped, would give them the chance to interview him there. He must have suspected something because he never showed up. Dr Holzinger then came to London and told us what had happened.

In 1939 two cases of the pictures under his care had been stored for safety in the cellars of a farm in the Taunus area. Soon after the Allied occupation an American Major had arrived in a truck with a note from his commanding officer authorising their delivery to a collecting point in Wiesbaden. The cases and the Major then disappeared.

During that period of chaos in Germany, the authorities had more pressing affairs to settle than the recovery of minor Dutch pictures and it was some time before anyone started to look for the colonel who had signed the note of authority for their collection. The fact that it was written on a blank sheet of paper and that the signature was—perhaps deliberately—almost illegible did not help but eventually its author was traced, by now demobilised and living in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

He admitted under questioning that when he wrote the note, he was being blackmailed by the Major who had discovered that his senior officer was having an affair with a lady in Hamburg. The Major had threatened to tell the Colonel’s wife about this unless the Colonel kept silent about the Major’s activities in Frankfurt. For the sake of domestic harmony the Colonel agreed, but since his wife had now left him he decided to hit back at the Major.

Dr Holzinger’s real interest in London lay in the second case which he hoped would contain Max Liebermann’s “The orphanage in Amsterdam”, a picture of which more postcards had been sold than of any other in the Staedel. Permission was obtained to open up the case and there indeed were Liebermann’s Dutch girls working away in their sunny courtyard. This tied up the loose ends of the affair, except for the Major, who remained elusive.

At about this date I must have read Browning’s enigmatic poem which begins with the question “What’s become of Waring?” The poet’s admirers will remember that it deals with a potentially brilliant young man who leaves England abruptly one morning without telling anyone where he is going. We never really learn the answer but Browning allows us a few fleeting glimpses of him: lurking in a dark alley outside Madrid, evading a pilot-boat off Trieste and taking snuff in the Kremlin. There is a hint of undercover activity and finally a suggestion that he may be leading a crusade in the Far East. The poem ends with the line “In Vishnu-Land what Avatar?” Even with the aid of a dictionary I have never quite understood what these words mean but they have a resonance which locks them in the memory. From then on Waring and the Major became intermingled in my mind.

I believe that I may have caught one more brief glimpse of him. Several years later I read in the press an account of the apprehension of a gang of gun-runners smuggling arms into Lebanon. Their leader escaped, but the frontier guards, with whom he had evidently had a previous encounter, were able to produce his photograph and it appeared at the head of the article. The features seemed familiar and the name by which he was known to the police (I never knew if it was his real one) was the same as the Major had given when he first brought his cases into Agnew’s.

Did the authorities ever catch up with him or is he still pursuing his devious ways through the murky fringes of late twentieth-century history? These are questions which I can no more answer than I can Browning’s “In Vishnu-Land what Avatar?”